So, I was persuaded to the couch for the purpose of checking out an episode of “Downton Abbey.” I’m a middle-class American, why do I want to view the trials and tribulations of some fabulously wealthy turn-of-the-century Brits in their swanky home? I’d glimpsed a trailer wherein a lovely young woman was fretting because her Lady’s Maid was unavailable: how on earth was she going to dress herself for the ball? Sulkily, I sat and watched. And despite myself, I became captivated—not by the ‘who will dress me?’ dilemma but by the dignity of the head chef and the struggles of the closeted gay butler. And Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was, it must be admitted, irresistible, even when she didn’t speak but arched an eyebrow or departed a room in a huff.
But I checked out of the series after a while. It wasn’t just the rape of one of the downstairs girls, it was the fussy woes and relentless disasters. You wish people could just live and work, but I guess that’s not a television script.
But boring rich English people can certainly be found in other entertainments. The PBS series of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice showed the young women posed on divans in dim sitting rooms, holding open books in front of their faces and trying not to keel over from the tedium. While some may tell us that Jane Austen profiled the aristocracy of Edwardian England with documentary accuracy, the whiff of feminism is present: some of these young women were smart and curious and chafing against a confining social system. Never mind spending hours pretending to read. Though it looked like they were marking time until they scored a suitable suitor (preferably a rich neighbor), they longed for meaningful dialogue or a life that mattered.
Remembering those women, I decided one snowy winter weekend to try another Austen tale, Emma. This time, I read the book, Austen’s own words. Well, my goodness! Once again, our heroine is rich and has a fine house and endures moments of boredom with her equally fancy friends. In one scene they are so bored that bossy Emma is able to talk everyone into a clumsy game of charades. <Yawn.>
I plowed on, remembering the gay butler and the wry Dowager of Downton Abbey, muttering to myself, “these are meant to be humans.” I did not expect more than to be diverted while stuck indoors in inclement weather. Lucky for me, my drawing room is comfy and I wasn’t awaiting any callers.
Imagine my surprise when an element of Emma’s story began to resonate. If you don’t know the plot, it is essentially the story of a young lady who meddles in the lives of her friends, playing matchmaker, making “suggestions” subtle and overt, planning and fulminating over dramas of her own contrivance. In short, Emma is not merely bossy, she is a control freak.
Again and again, Emma is shown to be dead wrong. She misreads a situation, she underestimates somebody, she sets events in motion that turn out differently than she meant them to, she blunderingly thwarts the natural order of things.
I sat up on the couch to keep reading. This had my attention. Because the narrative still followed the heroine’s thoughts, rather than stepping outside and judging. Jane Austen was basically addressing “what if what I think turns out to be quite wrong?” Haven’t we all been there?
Emma’s responses were more nuanced than I would have expected.
Emma was riding high until she wasn’t. She was ignoring the red flags and hurtling onward till her moment of humbling. And when it comes—a ruh-roh moment—our heroine does not cling ferociously to her illusions. Which, having been a control freak myself upon occasion <cough>, I found intriguing. She stops. She laments, and grieves. She thinks back, ruefully reviewing the signs she missed. Also, she now notices and ponders the gaps—the things she did not know and could not know.
So to say Emma is repeatedly humbled is not quite right. I think she is a good thinker. Her strong self esteem becomes an asset. Learning to admit when you are wrong is a universal struggle few of us escape. Learning how to move past admitting you were in error—to fresh thinking, to humility, to making amends, to shutting the hell up, to learning to “live and let live,” to gaining a new understanding of what friendship really can be—well, those are concepts worth exploring. Hats off to Jane Austen.